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Education in Utah — we must stop getting our lunch eaten by other states, countries

Prosperity Through Education — Utah's five-year direction for improvement — is not just another glossy plan. It first lays out a sobering assessment of Utah’s current educational status, then sets four major objectives.
Prosperity Through Education — Utah's five-year direction for improvement — is not just another glossy plan. It first lays out a sobering assessment of Utah’s current educational status, then sets four major objectives.
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Utah’s successes are legion and legendary. Accolades regularly roll in recognizing Utah as a top state for best economy, lowest unemployment, highest household income growth, low taxes, business-friendly environment and best places to live. Utah is also rated as the happiest state. But when it comes to education, we’re getting our lunch eaten by our sister states and other countries. This is according to the experts at the kick-off seminar in which Prosperity 2020 presented its five-year plan for Utah education called Prosperity Through Education.

Historically, Utah’s students and teachers have performed well, notwithstanding lowest in the nation funding. But solid educational attainment at a bargain price is coming to an end. Critics justifiably point to the steady increase in education funding without comparable improvement in outcomes.

On average, our students are performing at unacceptably low levels. Why? Poverty, lack of parental support, pop culture and its distractions, a lack of career and college guidance counseling, low teacher pay and morale and lack of preschool for under-privileged children. Pop culture works against education. Social media and video gaming distract students from attending school, paying attention in class and doing homework. But states successful in education deal with many of these same challenges.

Regional economies are being divided into winners and also-rans. Seattle, Boston, Silicon Valley, North Carolina’s Research Triangle and Austin are burgeoning centers of technology, innovation and entrepreneurism. Wages are high, opportunities are rife, and the quality of life excellent. The relationship between excellent K-12 and higher education and a great regional economy is undeniable. A highly educated workforce is the engine for such prosperity. Utah is in this elite group — to an extent.

However, our education system is underperforming. And we are not producing the numbers of engineers and computer science professionals to satisfy the demand of our existing businesses, let alone those of new companies. Our high school and college dropout rates are high and highly damaging to our economy.

Recognizing the undeniable linkage between economic success and excellent education, Gov. Gary Herbert has set a major goal for the state: By 2020, 66 percent of our workforce will have a college degree or professional certificate leading to a productive career. Virtually every group interested in Utah education has adopted the governor’s 66 percent by 2020 goal. To achieve this audacious objective will require unity and exceptional commitment among our political, business and educational leaders, parents, students — and taxpayers.

Prosperity Through Education is not just another glossy plan. It first lays out a sobering assessment of Utah’s current educational status. It then sets four major objectives: Utah will rank in the top 10 states in reading and math proficiency in fourth and eighth grades, in the rate of high school graduation and in the percentage of adults with post-secondary certificates and degrees.

The final keynote speaker, Eric Hanushek, Ph.D., fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford, gave us the clincher. An expert in the science of school achievement, Dr. Hanushek statistically confirmed to us that Utah’s students on average are falling behind. What can we do about it? The first and fundamental element of educational attainment is teacher quality. If we were to dismiss a few of the least effective teachers, the educational and economic gains would be staggering.

Teacher degrees, training, certificates and even their experience beyond the first couple of years have virtually no impact on a teacher’s effectiveness in teaching. Good teachers teach effectively. Bad ones don’t. But our system doesn’t get rid of lazy or incompetent teachers because it’s so hard to do. It takes political will and the cooperation of the educational establishment.

We need to identify the great and good teachers and reward them accordingly. We pay them poorly, especially in light of the important role they play in our society and economy. We need to attract the best potential teachers into our schools. We can no longer afford to carry bad teachers along. They must be identified and helped out of the system. Until we’re serious about this, our education system will bump along in steady decline.

Greg Bell is the former lieutenant governor of Utah and the current president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association.